As President Biden weighed his options for nominating the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, he scoured the records and backgrounds of his finalists and was struck by the work of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
That rationale for selecting Jackson — which senior White House officials laid out in a private call with Democratic senators shortly before Friday’s public announcement, detailed by two people with direct knowledge of the conversation — will ground the White House’s public case for Jackson as she faces confirmation in a bitterly-divided Senate.
If confirmed, Jackson, 51, who currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, will make history as the first Black woman to sit on the nation’s most powerful court in its nearly 233-year history.
The White House took pains both publicly and in private to portray a truly deliberative process, with people associated with other finalists receiving requests from administration officials as late as the middle of this week to provide background material.
But ultimately, few in Washington expected the president to choose someone other than Jackson, who had been considered for the high court since at least 2016 and was long seen as the leading candidate for an eventual vacancy during the Biden administration.
“She listens. She looks people in the eye — lawyers, defendants, victims and families,” Biden said from the Cross Hall of the White House Friday as he introduced Jackson as his Supreme Court pick. “She strives to ensure that everyone understands why she made a decision, what the law is, and what it means to them. She strives to be fair, to get it right, to do justice.”
Biden was particularly drawn to Jackson’s experience as Breyer’s clerk, according to one White House official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The president has deep affection for Breyer and wanted to replace him with someone in his mold, the official said, emphasizing Jackson not only worked directly for Breyer, but she also served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission like her former boss.
“He loved that she was Breyer’s clerk,” the White House official said.
But even if the choice of Jackson seemed inevitable, the path to her formal nomination Friday was fraught with some unexpected turns.
Most prominently, a spiraling conflict in Eastern Europe — culminating this week with Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine — dominated the news and consumed much of Biden’s time. Shortly after Breyer’s announcement in January, a health scare from Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) put in sharp view the fragility of the party’s majority in the Senate.
The search also featured an unusually public lobbying campaign for South Carolina federal district judge J. Michelle Childs led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has been credited for almost single-handedly turning around Biden’s moribund presidential campaign two years ago.
“I have no idea whether or not it helped or hurt in the final analysis,” Clyburn said Friday of the public efforts on behalf of Childs. “I do know this. It darn sure helped in the beginning.”
The White House official said Biden was unmoved by the outside advocacy on behalf of the candidates. The president consulted aides and members of Congress throughout the process, but public campaigns played no role in his decision, the official said.
Biden’s deliberation process, coordinated by top White House officials with years of experience in Washington’s confirmation wars, was nearly leakproof and, at times, seemed designed to throw the public off track. For instance, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Feb. 15 that the president “will do some interviews in the next two weeks.”
“That’s what I can confirm for you,” she said at the time.
On Friday, Psaki disclosed that Biden had actually interviewed all three finalists — Jackson, Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger — in person on Feb. 14.
West Wing aides also coordinated a nomination operation that brought together various departments, according to a White House official, including the counsel’s office, legislative affairs, public engagement, along with press and communications. They have been in frequent contact with members of Congress, surrogates and outside allies, advocating for the nominee and telling her story, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
Throughout his deliberations over the past four weeks, Biden and top administration aides sought input from nearly 70 senators, a White House spokesman said — from liberal as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to conservative Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Several senators and aides viewed those calls as largely checking the box. But on the call Friday morning with Judiciary Committee Democrats, the White House officials — led by Dana Remus and Reema Dodin, a top legislative affairs aide — said the administration would continue their outreach to Republicans.
In public, the White House began to make the case that Jackson merited bipartisan backing.
“She’s issued opinions without regard to partisan considerations,” Psaki said. “She’s ruled in favor of Republicans and Democrats. She’s ruled for and against the government, regardless of whether the government is led by a Democratic president or a Republican president.”
As for Biden, he has invested much personal capital into courting a handful of GOP senators, most notably Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has received three phone calls from the president on the Supreme Court process, including as recently as Friday when Biden informed her he had selected Jackson.
“Ketanji Brown Jackson is an experienced federal judge with impressive academic and legal credentials,” Collins said. “I will conduct a thorough vetting of Judge Jackson’s nomination and look forward to her public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and to meeting with her in my office.”
But as much as the White House would like a bipartisan vote, it doesn’t need one as long as the 50 members of the Democratic caucus do not defect, which is not expected.
That party unity could have been more in question had Biden picked Childs. She was the candidate with perhaps the highest ceiling for Republican support but had made some liberals, particularly those affiliated with unions, uneasy with her background at a corporate law firm defending employers against workers.
Clyburn aggressively promoted Childs, talking about her in news interviews and in private conversations with both Democratic and Republican senators — even as Clyburn said he never spoke directly with Childs as the White House evaluated her for the vacancy.
“Sometimes, as Stacey Abrams told us so eloquently two years ago, when you’re growing up in the South, growing up Black in the South, you have a different set of experiences and … you need to sometimes prod people to make them pay attention to you,” Clyburn said, referring to the Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has become a Democratic Party star.
Of Childs, Clyburn added: “She was on nobody’s radar. Then she got on everybody’s radar.”
Clyburn was among the handful of top lawmakers whom Biden personally called before the Jackson announcement went public. In that brief conversation, Biden told Clyburn that he felt the South Carolina Democrat might be disappointed in his choice.
“I told him it’s his decision,” Clyburn recalled.
Biden told Jackson on Thursday night that he was offering her the nomination, while Kruger and Childs were informed of the president’s decision on Friday morning.
Now, Jackson’s confirmation will take top priority in the Senate, where Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to immediately hold a vote on installing Jackson to the Supreme Court as soon as the Judiciary Committee reports out her nomination, which is expected in the coming weeks.
By that time, Luján — who suffered a stroke and is now recovering in Washington — is expected to return to the Senate and be able to vote on Jackson’s confirmation. Schumer said Friday at a news conference in New York that Luján was recovering well and that “his recent illness will not stand in the way of moving quickly.”
“It’s going to be a fair process,” Schumer said. “But it’s going to be an expeditious process.”